My grandmother died yesterday. When my parents called to tell me, I felt a sadness for my mom, who, even though she’d been expecting the news, was understandably upset. And I felt a sorrow that my grandma was gone. After I’d hung up the phone, though, I realized: my grandma was pretty much a stranger to me.
In a way, she’d always been one. When I was a kid, our family would visit their small Missouri town each summer, driving from Louisiana or California or Texas (or wherever) when we lived in the States, or fly as part of our “home-leave” when we lived in Indonesia. For a few days or a week each summer, my sister and I played in my grandparents’ yard, hammering nails into the hard dirt or building roads with metal Tonka bulldozers, hand-me-downs from my mom’s eight brothers, the youngest only a few months older than me. We’d dart from room to room in their old wooden farmhouse, box fan churning up humid air. We played with board games and slept on sagging mattresses upstairs with a revolving cast of girl cousins and second cousins. We’d creep downstairs to pee in the house’s single bathroom, stairs announcing our whereabouts. Before bed, we’d catch lightening bugs and eat watermelon, getting in seed-spitting contests with the other kids, while all those older uncles and their wives/girlfriends sat in fold-out aluminum lawn chairs, chatting with my parents and grandparents.
It sounds pretty idyllic, and it both was and wasn’t. There were always people and activity, but there was also always a divide. Life there was like constantly sitting at the children’s table — we could eat with our mouths open and laugh loudly with the other kids, but the adults stayed segregated. The typical image of a grandma bouncing a child on her knees didn’t exist; babies were passed around the adults like adorable toys, but we older kids were left to our own devices. Maybe this was because of the time, or maybe it was the result of the sheer number of people.
Although I feel for my mom’s grief, my grandmother’s death got me thinking about how different Lizzie’s relationship with her grandparents is compared to mine.
Whenever we saw my parents when Lizzie was younger, it was like she suddenly couldn’t see me (and later, when I remarried, Jeff turned invisible, too). My toddler would grab my mom’s hand with one of hers and my dad’s hand with the other and show them around our small Brooklyn apartment. They were the type of grandparents who’d get down on the floor to play. My dad became “horsie,” leaving Lizzie in hysterical laughter on the Persian rug. My mom would snuggle and read Lizzie the photo books she’d made and mailed — with titles like “Lizzie Makes a Chocolate Pizza.” (At fourteen, Lizzie still has all of them.) Lizzie would dart into her room and put on one of the Halloween costumes my mom sewed each year for her and spend hours doing imaginary play. They endured endless games of Candyland and Hi Ho Cherry-O, a certain sign of selfless love, if you’ve ever played those games.
The first time Jeff and I left Lizzie for more than a night was with Grammy and Grampy, when we took a vacation, our first extended time alone as a couple. The first night, as I dialed my folks’ number on the cellphone, expecting to hear from Lizzie that she’d moped around the house all day, I could detect no sadness in her voice. “Mommy, I swimmed with Grampy and played beauty shop with Grammy!” she said, adding, “I have to go. Bye.” Apparently she did not miss us much at all.
Another time, when Lizzie was nine, my folks took her on a trip to San Diego. Later, as she excitedly filled Jeff in about visiting an amusement park with “huge roller-coaster and splashing rides!” and an aquarium, where she got to see her favorite animal, dolphins, she sighed contentedly. “It was the best day ever!” she said. She’s fourteen now, and that day with Grammy and Grampy is still one of her best days ever. And I suspect it will always be.
And, in the distant future, if our grandkid wants to play Candyland nine times in a row, I’ll sit on the floor and enjoy it.